The most shocking act of Dylan’s career

From a 21st-century perspective, it seems extraordinary that a rock star announcing a new-found belief in Jesus could ever have been controversial. Most popular hip hop and R&B stars end their album acknowledgements with a thank you to God, and even alternative musicians with an interest in the darker side of life (such as Nick Cave) are vocal about their religious beliefs. Yet when Bob Dylan turned to Christianity at the end of the 1970s, it was seen by many fans as the most shocking thing he could possibly have done.

It’s strange to imagine a time when listeners identified quite so strongly with a singer, but Bob Dylan fans have always been alert to their hero betraying them. Whether it’s changing genre, hiding out in the countryside or simply releasing records they don’t like, many baby boomers often take things that he does as a personal attack.

Dylan’s response is simply to keep moving. But in recent years he and his management have returned to former periods to provide more context with new out-takes, unreleased songs, rehearsals and live recordings. The main outlet for this has been his Bootleg Series, the 13th volume of which – Trouble No More – has just been released. It tackles the period from 1979 to 1981, when Dylan put out three albums of largely Christian music: Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love.

The oft-told story of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity begins in San Diego in November 1978, when an audience member threw a silver cross onto his stage. He pocketed it, and the next day in an Arizona hotel room Dylan believed he felt Jesus put his hand on him and knock him over. Soon after he started attending meetings of a small Evangelical group known as the Vineyard Fellowship, a church later dismissed by the British journalist Neil Spencer as a “dumb Sunday school for addled cokeheads”. (Years later Dylan played four songs for Pope John Paul II in Bologna, who responded with a sermon based on the lyrics to Blowin’ in the Wind.)

Dylan’s conversion prompted not just these three albums, but also a series of tours where (at least to begin with) he played nothing but his new Christian songs, interspersed with apocalyptic “raps” that dismayed much of his old audience while delighting new followers.

Available in four LP, two CD, eight CD or (direct from his website) 10 CD versions, this new box set provides a fascinating way of revisiting the era.

Perhaps the most intriguing inclusion is a DVD entitled Trouble No More – A Musical Film. Rather than put the era in context with a documentary, Dylan has made the slightly strange decision to intersperse video rehearsal and concert footage with a series of sermons given by an Evangelical preacher played by the actor Michael Shannon. They were written by the Belgian author Luc Sante, inspired by themes given to him by Dylan.

At first the sermons seem to follow conventional doctrine, but as Shannon begins to rant about the moral perils of fast food, it’s hard to know whether we should read this as sincere or a knowing wink from Dylan to his audience about how hard-line he was during this period. Has he chosen an actor rather than a real hellfire preacher to encourage us not to take the more disturbing of the apocalyptic beliefs he espoused during this time seriously? Was the extremity of his persona always partly a put-on?

He certainly seemed sincere at the time. Some Dylanologists will no doubt find fault with the way the music is presented. The shows would often begin with a set from the gospel singers who accompanied Dylan onstage, and these are not represented here. Nor is there much of Dylan’s onstage sermonising. But it’s still essential. Slow Train Coming is a great album by any standard, among Dylan’s best. But the follow-up Saved is a weaker record. Songs that sounded great live failed to come to life in the studio, and anyone not put off by the music was horrified by the primitive cover. Shot of Love is far worse, and has been described by the Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin as an “atrocity”.

It’s the Saved tracks on this set that are truly revelatory, Dylan and his band tackling them with a ferocity that reveals them to be the equal of anything on the first religious album. And while the Shot of Love material is weaker, it’s still possible to put together an alternative version of the record that’s much more compelling than the official one. For the true believers, there are 14 additional unreleased songs, some of which will be familiar to fans (such as Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody) but others, including Making a Liar Out of Me, have never been bootlegged.

Trouble No More is not the full story. With Dylan, it never is. But it’s some of the most compelling religious music ever recorded, finally treated with the respect it deserves.

Matt Thorne is the author of Prince (Faber & Faber)